Solo Travel Tips of San Diego From a Local

Welcome to my town!  After having moved down here for college in 2001, I just couldn’t leave.  With the UCSD campus in La Jolla and right next to the ocean, it’s easy to say I was spoiled with arguably the perfect location.  

The perfect weather, a strong influence of Mexican cuisine, and great craft breweries are just a glimpse of what this city has to offer.  With so much to offer, this city has everything for any traveler but especially for a solo traveler.  You’ll never run out of things to do, visit, and eat while you’re here for a long weekend or even an extended stay.  Here is a local’s guide to visiting America’s Finest City as a solo traveler.  

Getting Here:

The city is serviced by San Diego International Airport (aka Lindbergh Field) and according to The Points Guy, was ranked the #1 airport in the US.  San Diego is well connected by all major domestic airlines and is a focus city for Alaska and Southwest Airlines so getting here is fairly simple. Internationally, the airport is lacking in direct flights to many cities but it’s simple to get a connecting flight from anywhere in the US, especially if you’re flying into the West Coast.  

Getting from the airport to anywhere in the city is simple.  Uber and Lyft are easily available as well as taxis. If you want to drive around the city, you’ll have a wide selection of rental cars to choose from, especially in the rental car terminal.  

San Diego
Photo by Hansel Tjia

Getting Around:

If driving isn’t your thing, you’ll certainly want to rely on Uber or Lyft to get around.  Although there is public transportation, it’ll certainly take ages to get anywhere and the trolley (although a fast way to get from one end of the city to the other) is fairly fast, it’s limited in its access to many parts of the city.  Remember that the city, much like the rest of California, is centered around the car so driving is really the easiest way to get around.  

If you do decide to drive, the directions are pretty simple.  If you go too far west, you’ll hit the Pacific. Too far south and you’re in Mexico.  Too far north and you’ll be in Orange County (the divide between San Diego and Orange county is a HUGE military base called Camp Pendleton so you’ll know you’ve gone too far).  Too far east and you’ll be surrounded by nothing. If you take that basic approach to navigating, you’ll be fine.  

Where to stay:

Know before coming here that outside of the beach communities, you’ll be fine staying anywhere in the city and be pretty much within 15 minutes from downtown.  Staying anywhere from Mission Valley, Little Italy, Old Town, and Downtown, you’ll be pretty close to downtown and those areas are all along the trolley line so you’ll be able to take the trolley to/from downtown if that’s where you’re headed.  

If you wanted to go further north and stay in the La Jolla, Carlsbad, or further, you can but those areas tend to be more expensive and will be about a 30 minute drive to downtown.  However, if you wanted to visit some great beaches and wonderful scenery, that may be the place for you.

One thing to note is that most of the major attractions here in San Diego are NOT accessible via the trolley.  You can take the bus to the different attractions but places like Sea World, the San Diego Zoo, Zoo Safari Park, and Legoland are not accessible with the trolley so your best bet will be to take and Uber.  

Things to do:

Obviously the major attractions are well known and depending on your interests, it’s a great place to start.  But for a more local tour of the city, I’d recommend a few other places.  

Balboa Park

Located right next to the San Diego Zoo, it’s a park that’s located pretty much in the center of the city.  There are typically events going on there during the weekends and is also where pretty much all the museums are located.  If you’re here during the early part of December, check out the Balboa Park December Nights festival. It’s a great place to go and although it’s only or 2 days a year, thousands of us San Diegans show up to walk around, check out the museums and eat the food.  On a regular weekend, it’s where we go to walk the dog, jog on the trails, and get together with friends to play ultimate frisbee.  

Balboa Park
Balboa Park at night. Photo taken by Hansel Tjia

Hillcrest

Surrounding Balboa Park is the area of Hillcrest.  Here you’ll find fantastic restaurants, bars, and shops all within walking distance.  It’s also the center of San Diego’s LGBTQ community and has (in my view) the best farmer’s market in San Diego every Sunday.  It’s easy to spend an entire afternoon here walking around and enjoying the shops and restaurants.  

North Park

Next to Hillcrest is North Park the hipster neighborhood of San Diego.  In some ways it’s tough to know where Hillcrest ends and North Park starts but walk along University Ave and you’ll see indie stores, cafes,  and bars selling craft beers and drinks. This is the place to be if you want the nightlife without the pretentious dress codes and insane cover charges.  

Old Town 

Moving toward downtown, Old Town is a touristy part of San Diego that has it’s parts.  It has the old area with recreations of buildings and shows the early days of San Diego.  As the “birthplace of California,” it has a lot of stores and restaurants to explore. While you’re here, you might want to visit the Whaley House (which is supposedly haunted) and then walk a little further to the small but interesting cemetery.  There are a ton of Mexican restaurants here but I’d say they’re a little overpriced for my liking and it caters to the tourists for sure. That doesn’t mean the food is bad at all, actually it’s pretty good. But I think you can do better for less elsewhere in the city.  

Little Italy 

Moving closer to downtown, this is right off the trolley stop and although there are numerous Italian restaurants (including the original Filippi’s) there are a ton of other restaurants to choose from that are amazingly good.  Little Italy not only has great restaurants but also fantastic bars as well. This is usually where you’ll start your evening for dinner before you head downtown for a night out. But for me, the best time is to walk around during the day and enjoy the food and atmosphere.  The area tends to die down at night so lunch and later afternoons are perfect.  

Embarcadero

Just west of Little Italy is the embarcadero.  This is a great place to walk during the early evenings. I suggest starting at the north end of the embarcadero (near the airport) and walk south.  You’ll see downtown lit up and it’s a great, scenic walk. You probably won’t get better views of the city from this side of the water. While you’re here, check out the USS Midway museum.  It’s an old aircraft carrier and a nod to the city’s military background.  

Downtown/Gaslamp

From clubs to bars to restaurants, downtown has everything for a night out.  You can pretty much find anything you want here from a low key bar with a patio to people watch to a club where guys need to put on the “downtown uniform” (dress jeans, dress shirt, and dress shoes). You can also find rooftop bars, pool parties, and speakeasy bars all within a few blocks of each other.  You certainly can’t go wrong if you’re looking for nightlife here. It’s also right next to Petco Park (if you’re interested in watching a Padre game or a concert) and the Convention Center is right here as well (if you’re here for a convention like ComiCon).  

Pacific Beach

This is the college beach hangout area of San Diego. The street is lined with bars and clubs but not the necessarily the high end clubs where you have to worry about a dress code. This is PB after all. This is where college kids go to have fun on a weekend and drink until the bars close. Enjoy the day walking around PB and head to the beach and eat at the many eateries there. A local favorite is World Famous and is a great place to eat during happy hour. It’s right along the boardwalk and a great place to people watch and have some drinks.

La Jolla 

The ritzy part of San Diego is undoubtedly La Jolla.  With million dollar views and home prices to match, it’s no surprise that homes prices start in the low million dollar range.  However, you don’t need to have deep pockets to enjoy the town. Drive up to visit the coves and the children’s pool (where you’ll see the seals).  Walk around downtown La Jolla for some unique boutique shops and enjoy a stroll on the path next to the ocean. It isn’t very large but you’ll certainly get the “as seen on TV” feel of San Diego.  You can go kayaking, snorkeling, or swimming along the shore and if the water is clear, you should be able to see a fair amount of marine life.  

Coronado Island

I bit of a pain to get to but certainly worth the trip if you have the time, Coronado is an island connected to the city by the Coronado bridge.  The bridge itself might be one of the most iconic structures in the city and the big blue bridge can be seen from numerous points in the city. If you don’t want to drive (and driving over the bridge is a little nerve wracking), take an Uber or the San Diego hop on/hop off trolley tour.  The city itself is small with tons of little shops and restaurants but the main attraction is the Hotel Del Coronado. You’ll definitely want to stop in and take some pictures of this old hotel (especially the old timey elevator) and you may even see ghosts at this supposedly haunted hotel as well.  

Hotel Del Coronado
Hotel Del Coronado. Photo taken by Hansel Tjia

Things to Eat and Drink

Let’s start with the breweries.  There are a TON of breweries here in San Diego that you can’t possibly even begin to scratch the surface.  Some of the more popular are Ballast Point, AleSmith, Karl Strauss, Oggi’s and Stone. But that’s just a glimpse of what San Diego has on tap.  What’s also great is that many of these breweries also have restaurants attached to some of their breweries so you can have a few tasters, eat a small appetizer and move on to the next place.  You can even do a San Diego brewery tour if that’s more your style. If you’re a solo traveler and you like beer, a brewery tour might be the perfect place to meet both locals and tourists. It’s a popular activity for us locals as well.  

California Burrito

For food, I think there is ABSOLUTELY ONE THING everyone has to try.  It’s the California burrito.  Now being from LA originally, I had never heard of a Cali burrito until I moved to San Diego and I haven’t seen it anywhere but here so if there is ever a San Diego food, a Cali burrito is it.  It’s a flour tortilla filled with french fries, carne asada meat, salsa, and cheese. You can add sour cream and guacamole as well and some places already have it included. Just step into ANY mexican eatery and order it…no need to look at the menu.  Regardless of what it’s called on the menu, everyone knows what a Cali burrito is in San Diego. The best places to order this are a small eateries and NOT formal sit down restaurants. You just go into any shop, order at the counter, wait for your number to be called, and enjoy.  If you’ve been enjoying those beers all day, nothing will hit the spot quite like a Cali burrito will.  

The California Burrito…a San Diego staple that’s as popular as any burger.

In n Out

For burgers, you’ll want to try In n Out.  Not specific to San Diego but specific to the West Coast, this burger chain is arguably the best.  Everything is made fresh to order and nothing is frozen. Try to avoid the lunchtime rush because there will definitely be a line but you will be rewarded for your patience.  

Hodad’s

If you can get there, head over to Ocean Beach and go to Hodad’s.  They also have a location in Petco Park but the original is in OB. Parking is a pain in the butt so you’re better off taking an Uber here, stuffing your face, and then walking around the very hippy neighborhood of OB.  Since it’s called OB, you might as well enjoy the beach and the pier while you’re here.  

Slaters 50/50

This isn’t a San Diego burger joint but it is a SoCal joint that started in Orange County.  The burgers here are good (but you need to like bacon) and it’ll certainly fill you up. It’s located in Liberty Station which is part of the former military base that’s been transformed into a mixed use center.  It’s a great place to walk around for a few hours to see the shops and walk out the Liberty Station Market which is a food stall full of local eats. A pick stop at Bottlecraft will help you decide your favorite local beer on tap.  

Blue Water

Being a city by the water, our seafood is amazing.  You can find whatever in season at some of the best seafood joints but if you want a local place to eat, try Blue Water.  If you go during lunch, the line will be out the door and seating is tight so be patient. This unassuming eatery is located about 5 mins from the airport is a usual stop to/from the airport for many people.  The menu changes often and your options are grilled on a plate, sandwich, salad, or taco. Even then, you might have a tough time picking your marinade.  

Another local delicacy is the San Diego sea urchin.  It’s arguably the best in the country and a lot of farmers markets here will have some to buy or eat on the spot.  If you like sea urchin, you’ll definitely want to stop and try a few bites around the county.

Rubios

Sticking with a seafood theme, you can try the original Rubios fish taco joint here in San Diego.  Now a chain that covers a few states on the West Coast, you’ll find a Rubios pretty much everywhere here in San Diego because they’re cheap and flavorful.  They might sound weird but give it a try. I’ll bet you’ll wonder why you don’t have these in your hometown.  

Crack Shack

For a twist on chicken, look no further than Crack Shack.  Owned by Chef Richard Blais (of Top Chef fame), this spot in Little Italy is not your ordinary chicken.  Stand in line and order at the counter. Seating is outdoors in a patio area in a family style seating arrangement.  Even if you’re eating alone, it won’t be long before you make some friends. 

Final Thoughts

There are tons of things to do here in San Diego and regardless if you’re visiting as a solo traveler or with friends, you can always enjoy the near perfect weather, the beaches, and about as authentic Mexican food as you can find this side of the border.  Of course we have the tourists sites like Legoland, Sea World, and the Safari Park. But we also have some affordable options as well which is more in line for what we locals like to do on the weekends. Balboa park is a great place to go on Sundays as well as hiking in the hills.  As yes, as cliche as it sounds for SoCal, going to the beach is on our list too. So come out and enjoy the city. I’m sure you’ll quickly see why I call it home.  

San Diego Bay
Photo taken by Hansel Tjia
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